In all the conversations I have with people about socialism and socialist states, the one argument invariably made by those who are pro-capitalism or by liberals who are yet to develop an understanding of socialism is that socialist states are dictatorships and not democracies. It’s not their fault, for we live in a world dominated by the North and the West, and liberal values across the globe are shaped by what those countries decide we must uphold.
The belief that the Western liberal democracy is the only form of government that should exist is so deeply entrenched that the majority of people cannot even bring themselves to imagine an alternate form and hence, are quick to equate socialist states with actual dictatorships. Before we delve deeper into socialist theories, let us first ask ourselves what do we mean by democracy? Is it only our right to vote politicians and political parties in and out of power? Or is it our ability to take decisions in institutions that directly affect our lives?
The idea of democracy is if you have to live with the decisions, then you must be able to participate in making them.
— Richard D. Wolff (@profwolff) September 14, 2012
If we agree with this definition of democracy, then would we say that the Western liberal democratic societies are actually democratic?
Workplace Democracy = Everyone affected by workplace decisions (workers + customers + their communities) should make workplace decisions. One person one vote. In capitalism only owners and top executives decide and is the opposite of democracy.
— Richard D. Wolff (@profwolff) May 13, 2018
So are capitalist countries not authoritarian? Does democracy only belong to national level politics and not to our workplace?
We think we have an open society because we can criticize our government, but the company we work for has far more impact on our lives, and if you criticize them publicly they will fire you. The private sphere is still run like a dictatorship, by thousands of petty tyrants.
— Existential Comics (@existentialcoms) October 14, 2018
We need to accept that authoritarianism is our reality, regardless of our society being capitalist or socialist. But are these two forms of authority equal? Let us take another step back and understand what is capitalism, socialism, and communism.
Capitalism: An economic mode of production in which the means of production – land, labor, technology, infrastructure, etc. – are owned by a wealthy ruling class. The business owners have invested “capital” in the business and hence “own” the business, i.e. its revenue, its profits, and its employees. Why do some people have surplus capital to invest is another discussion but a quick summary is that they stole wealth, especially the surplus value of labor and land, from weaker groups through the exploitation of the working class and through colonization of tropical countries.
In a capitalist society, the decision-making power is concentrated with a wealthy minority and whoever controls the means of production, controls society. Hence, the authoritarianism we face every day at work. By its very nature, capitalism requires society to be divided into different economic classes and a state that enables the oppression of the working class in order to benefit the ruling.
Communism: An economic mode of production in which the means of production are owned by the workers and not the ruling class. The workers make the actual production and hence should own the business, its revenue, and its profits. This is real democracy. No one owns the employees, for human beings are not commodities to be bought and sold for labor (worth reminding here that at one time human beings were literally bought and sold in chattel slavery – a distinctive feature in the evolution of capitalism).
In a communist society, the decision-making power is decentralized and since the means of production are collectively controlled, there is no authoritarianism or domination of one group over another. By its very nature, it requires a society without class distinctions. Communism also calls for no political governance of society, as explained by Lenin in State and Revolution.
Socialism: Defined differently by different people but I’ll stick to the Marxist definition that socialism is the transition phase between capitalism and communism during which the means of production are controlled by a government that represents the working class and not the ruling class. Socialism is the lower phase of communism and hence, can be used interchangeably with communism.
Socialism requires an authoritarian state to keep revolts by the ruling class in check as the state works towards redistribution of wealth because it is delusional to think that the wealthy will happily part with their excess wealth. (Side note – Scandinavian “social democracy” is not socialism but that, too, is another discussion.)
So where do elections and governments figure in these economic modes of production?
To answer this, we need to think about why governments exist in the first place. Governmental forms have existed throughout modern history, in monarchies and feudal systems. The obvious answer is that governments exist to maintain order in society but then why do the majority of governments fail in maintaining order? Why do governments repeatedly fail to give justice to the poor? Why does poverty still exist? Do we really need to be governed forever? Can there be a society where no form of authority is exerted upon us? Can we not be free?
Here is an excerpt from Lenin’s State and Revolution that sheds more light on the purpose of a state:
“There developed in the nineteenth century, he [Marx] says, originating from the days of absolute monarchy, ‘the centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judicature.’ With the development of class antagonism between capital and labor, ‘the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.’ … The state power … became ‘the national war engine of capital against labor.’”
It is important here to clarify that the modern police, as agents of the government, was initially not created to fight crime and maintain order. The police were created to protect property – the property of the rich against the poor. Over a period of time, the role of crime fighting was given to the police but in a society where the government itself oppresses the poor, is it any wonder why the police fail so miserably at fighting crimes against the poor but bend over backward for rich business owners?
Capitalism requires a government because the government is its instrument of oppression, and in a society where capitalists buy and install politicians in the government, the government becomes a bastion for the ruling class instead of the working class. Hence elections, the process of choosing among political parties are, in essence, pointless exercises as long as the different political parties are capitalist in their ideology. That is in not to say that one party does not have the potential to affect more change than another but such changes are not radical but are instead reformist, which is again another discussion.
On the uselessness of elections, here’s a quote by Einstein from his 1949 essay Why Socialism:
“Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature.
The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.”
Here’s another quote, from a blog by Stephen Gowans, on why elections in the way they are conducted are a failure at democracy:
“The wealthy are keen on electoral politics—when they go their way, as they often do. Elections in capitalist society can be dominated by money, as can the larger political process. Banks, corporations and major investors lobby politicians, fund political campaigns, bribe legislators with the promise of lucrative post-political jobs, place their representatives in key positions in the state, and shape the ideological environment through their control of the media, creation of think-tanks, hiring of PR firms, and funding of university chairs.
Those without wealth can hardly compete, except, in principle, by pooling their resources and hoping to tilt the balance the other way against a formidable foe that controls infinitely more resources. The absence of organization and class consciousness, however, routinely assures this doesn’t happen. Moreover, the electoral arena channels dissent into predictable, controllable paths, keeping it off the streets, where it might become unpredictable and therefore dangerous. Additionally, the sway that corporate, banking and investor groups exercise behind the scenes is masked by the egalitarian spectacle of elections. One person, one vote. What could be more equal?”
Another important question to ask is what percentage of eligible voters actually vote?
Even in a developed first-world nation like the US, only 50-60% of the eligible voters actually vote in presidential elections. At its highest, 66% percent of eligible voters voted in the 2014 general elections in India. In the recent Brazil elections, 60% of the voters voted. It’s also important to remember that right-wing and far-right political parties have risen to power in recent times in India, the US, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, and the Philippines through elections, and not through street battles with communists. In fact, even Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 through the democratic vote. So is voting in national level elections really helping make the world a better place for the oppressed and the poor?
The right vote in a capitalist society is not a measure of democracy at all but is instead a mockery of democracy. So are socialist states more democratic than capitalist states? How is authoritarianism in socialist states different than capitalist states? I continue this in Part 2 of the article.